Duke Ellington Nutcracker Suite Returns to ESU

Posted by: Elizabeth Richardson on November 21, 2018, No Comments

Whether you know the story of “The Nutcracker” or not, you certainly know the music, and at this time of year the child in everyone can embrace that message of magical wonderment: Only those who believe can see.

And if you like music, you’ll also believe what you can hear when East Stroudsburg University and The Al Cohn Memorial Jazz Collection present the “Duke Ellington Nutcracker Suite” on Saturday, December 8.

Performing the big band arrangement of the classic will be the 16-piece Water Gap Jazz Orchestra, with narration by two special guests: noted jazz vocalist Nancy Reed and Edward Kennedy Ellington II, Duke’s grandson.

This is the second year for the concert at ESU. Jazz program coordinator Matt Vashlishan had been having casual conversations with a local coffee shop owner last year about the merits of big band music. The man insisted he didn’t like it at all, despite Vashlishan’s attempts to persuade him that there were many varieties, and surely there was something he could find to enjoy.

Then one day he told Vashlishan he’d found one big band album that he liked: the “Duke Ellington Nutcracker Suite.” He was so enthused that he suggested staging a local performance of during the holiday season.

Vashlishan took that idea and ran with it, setting up a concert with the Water Gap Jazz Orchestra, the group originally formed by the late Phil Woods, alto sax legend.

Looking for local luminaries to tell the Nutcracker story between the nine movements, Vashlishan approached Reed, who not only agreed to perform, but suggested a perfect narration partner.

“How about an Ellington?,” she asked, noting that she had performed with Duke’s namesake and grandson, whose Duke Ellington Legacy band has played at the Celebration of the Arts festival and at the Deer Head Inn, both in Delaware Water Gap.

And so, the holiday collaboration was formed and continues with this year’s performance, which Vashlishan will again conduct.

Over lunch at the Sycamore Grill in Delaware Water Gap recently, Edward Ellington regaled the table with tales of traveling with his grandfather’s band, which his father Mercer Ellington took over after Duke’s death in 1974. While Edward played guitar with the band for a number of years, he said he never got a chance to play well, because he was saddled with the grueling job of road manager, lugging equipment and baggage on and off the stage and chartered buses. The band traveled the world, often on a tight schedule and playing every night.

“The band never made money,” he says. “Ellington made his money off the music.”

The Duke Ellington “Nutcracker” was written in 1960 when Duke and Billy Strayhorn, his long-time collaborator, put their distinctive big band sound on Peter Tchaikovsky’s 1892 ballet music. The Ellington Orchestra recording was a hit when released, then fell into relative obscurity. But since the score was published in 2010, orchestras are taking it up for Christmas performances.

Simply put, the Ellington “Nutcracker” takes the familiar music and jazzes it up in lively and difficult-to-play ways. “Dance of the Reed-Pipes” becomes “Toot Toot Tootie Toot.” The toy soldier “March” becomes “Peanut Brittle Brigade.” And “Dance of the Sugar-Plum Fairy” becomes “Sugar Rum Cherry.”

Vashlishan describes it as a very difficult piece for the ensemble to play, with each part virtuosic.

“There are a lot of disconnected tempos,” Edward Ellington notes. “He used every instrument.”

“Originally it takes about 35 minutes to perform,” Vashlishan says. “I extend a few sections to allow for improvisation, which makes it a bit longer. We are also performing one or two extra pieces. We always feature Nancy for a tune.”

He also notes that jazz luminary Dan Block will be joining the group on clarinet and tenor sax again this year. “Combined with Jay Rattman (a young wind virtuoso who grew up in Stroudsburg) it is a clarinet tour de force that is very much needed for this music, and a special treat to hear.”

The concert, on Saturday, December 8, begins at 7 p.m. at the Cecilia Cohen Recital Hall at the Fine & Performing Arts Center on campus. All proceeds from ticket sales go to the musicians and to support the Al Cohn Memorial Jazz Collection at ESU. Tickets can be purchased, by visiting esufoundation.org/Nutcracker2018